George Packer talks economic forces in political discourse


Large numbers of Americans who mobilized the “Occupy” movement no longer camp in parks and protest in the streets, as they did when the protests caught fire in 2011. But concerns raised then about inequality, the economic forces shaping the global economy, and what’s happening to some American institutions, remained a central part of the political dialogue this year. Echoes of the Occupy movement showed up in President Obama’s early December speech on mobility, and in the election of Bill DeBlasio as the next mayor of New York City –running on a campaign centered on “the tale of two cities.” Author and New Yorker staff writer George Packer published an award-winning book in 2013 called “The Unwinding” that took a different approach to exploring how these economic themes play out in contemporary America. In it, Packer examines what’s happened to some of our biggest institutions — in finance, industry and politics, among others — and how their role in American life has dramatically changed over several decades.

While those themes are frequently and extensively written about, Packer’s lens and method was different: He profiled several ordinary Americans, chronicling how they fit into the larger picture. At the same time, he profiles more notable figures and celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich and Robert Rubin, weaving their role into the larger fabric. All of this while introducing chapters with memorable headlines and pop culture moments of recent decades. It’s an approach that was inspired in part by the novels of John Dos Passos and his “U.S.A.” trilogy.

“The Unwinding” won Packer a National Book award this year. The judges wrote that the economic tale “exposes tattering seams in the national tapestry. In an account of economic decline that traverses large cities and small towns, he casts a discerning eye on banks and Wall Street while tracing the painful dissolution of much of our economic infrastructure. His compelling profiles of struggling, ordinary workers, amid snapshots of wealthy, ambitious, and even notorious celebrities, dramatize the widening gulf between rich Americans and everybody else.”

Jeffrey Brown sat down with Packer to discuss his work. That conversation appeared on the PBS NewsHour Thursday, but the author had more to say. In this extended interview, Packer discusses the way these issues are rising again in the American political discourse — as well as how he went about picking people to profile for his book.